Quincy Barack Greene: Youth advocate, STEM researcher

Quincy Barack Greene: Youth advocate, STEM researcher

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Many of you may know Quincy Greene for his work with Safeguards or Brothers United or the Mazzoni Center.

On the job, he’s a whirlwind of activity and confidence, but what you may not know that at heart he’s a really shy fellow. With his arms hugging his sides, I feared he was going to shrink into himself during our interview ... when he wasn’t giggling with embarrassment at having to talk about himself! Fortunately, we made it through and we got to know a dynamic force in the LGBT community. Just don’t ask him to talk about himself.

PGN: Where are you from? QG: I was born in Georgetown, Guyana, which is in South America, part of the Caribbean. I was only there until I was about 2 when my parents emigrated to this country. I have two older brothers, one who was born in the States and the other also in Guyana.

PGN: Your older brother was born here and you in Guyana? QG: [Laughs.] Yes, my mother gave birth to him when she was here visiting her sister. It almost happened in Jamaica! He’s the only one in the family that’s an American citizen. I’m still a Guyanese citizen though I was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y.

PGN: Have you been back to Guyana? QG: Twice, once when I was 5 to renew my passport. It was kind of surreal, being a Brooklyn kid and going back there. We ate a lot of traditional food at home and a lot of my parents’ friends were Guyanese, but actually being in Guyana and seeing donkeys walking around experiencing the sights and smells was really different. It’s amazing how each country outside the U.S. has it’s own scent. The Amazon has a very distinct aroma because of the rich soil, the water, the foods, even the car exhaust in the cities.

PGN: What stood out the most for you? QG: [Laughs.] Animal droppings! You don’t usually see donkey droppings in Brooklyn and once I saw one, I assumed that everything I saw was from an animal. I kept yelling to my mother, “Mom, I’m scared I’m going to step in it!” When I went back the second time as an adult, I remember a dish called black pudding. Growing up in the States, I associated pudding with Bill Cosby and chocolate. But black pudding in Guyana is more like a sausage. A lot of cultures have some variation of it, blood pudding in England and Germany or red pudding in Cajun cuisine. It’s made with dried blood and rice with herbs and spices — delicious, but it took some getting used to. I was also used to my food coming from a store, so when we stayed at my grandmother’s house and she asked if I wanted chicken for dinner, I was shocked to see her go into the backyard and grab a chicken and bring it into the house. I asked her what she was doing and she said, “Preparing dinner. Come help me chop the head off.” I was not ready for that: I skipped dinner that night. Sometimes food can be a little too fresh.

PGN: What was the best part? QG: Seeing a wonderful, vibrant culture that was part of my heritage, it really made me proud. And they all looked like me! As a young person, I was bullied a lot at school and teased about being dark-skinned and having a different nose, eyes, lips — it was tough.

PGN: It’s crazy how much color bias there is within the black community. People think we all get along, but there can be a lot of animosity between light- and dark-skinned people, stemming back from when the house and the field slaves were separated by color. QG: Yes, all of elementary school I was bullied heavy-duty by other black kids for being “too black” and having a big nose. It really hurt a lot. It was awful. On the flip side, I did appreciate America better after visiting Guyana as an adult. You learn to appreciate things like paved roads or power that doesn’t go out on a whim. People here turn their noses up at tap water and pay for it bottled; over there they would drink from the faucet and you could see stuff floating in the water. I remember seeing my cousins coming in from the heat pouring a glass and being like, “Ah, refreshing!” and there was algae or whatever visible in the glass! My trip would have been over if I drank from the tap: I would have been sick for a month. Also, Guyana is near Colombia and Venezuela, so there were drug cartels that used [the area] as a way to get through the Caribbean, and they took over parts of Guyana to do so. Some of them would come in guns blazing and take over the police departments, which was like, Holy cow! They just outgunned the police! The daily violence in some parts was crazy.

PGN: What did your parents do? QG: My mom was trained as an electrician and my dad was in the Navy but he also did construction work. When we moved here, she became an administrative assistant at some pretty big companies in New York. My dad did mostly construction work here.

PGN: What was your favorite thing to do as a kid? QG: I liked being outside. I played jump rope with the girls a lot, but I played with boys too. But I also was a big nerd. My friends and I used to like to hang out at the library. Starting at 9, I did construction work with my dad each summer.

PGN: Favorite class? QG: Math. In sixth grade, I was taking high-school-level courses. I wanted to be a rocket scientist.

PGN: Best project? QG: I did a proposal on accident prevention developing highways that could sense a potential accident and slow down traffic.

PGN: What brought you to Philly? QG: I wanted to be a mechanical engineer and Drexel had one of the best programs in the country and gave me a nice financial package. I met someone and came out and then moved with him back to New York to help my mom, who was battling breast cancer. After her death I moved back here.

PGN: First serious relationship? QG: It was in high school with a girl and lasted about two years until I came out to her. She was an English major and decided to write a novel about it, which she then distributed to everyone she knew at school. It made the last two years of high school very difficult. I lost a lot of friends. I didn’t have a serious relationship with a guy until college.

PGN: And you’re a musician? QG: Yeah, I was a band geek: marching, concert and jazz band. I was a member of the glee club before it got cool! I even started a little baroque ensemble on my own. I started playing in elementary school, trombone, trumpet and then started playing woodwinds. Each year we got to go to Disney and perform. One year I got the All-City Marching Band MVP award and got to play at Lincoln Center. It shaped a lot of my life. I’m still friends with a lot of my bandmates.

PGN: It’s so important and yet arts funding is always the first to go. QG: [Sighs.] It saved my life. It gave me a sense of pride and gave me something to do on a Saturday. People see me as I am now, almost preppy, but I come from a rough neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant. In the ’80s, there were drug dealers and winos on every corner. It was blocks from the Marcy Projects, where Lil’ Kim, Biggie Smalls and Jay-Z all came from. Just walking to school, I was given offers to try drugs or join a gang, but fortunately my parents were strong positive role models and band gave me something to do other than get in trouble. It opened up lots of doors and offered new experiences. Some of my peers weren’t so lucky.

PGN: Tell me about your research job. QG: I got to do an internship at Harvard University in biostats, which was like, wow, who gets that? And from there, I got a grant to work in the biostat lab at the University of Penn School of Medicine. It was probably the most prestigious — and high-paying — job I’ve ever had. It changed my life: I’d been going to Cheney University on the Lax scholarship and was studying math. I was actually able to give some of the Lax money back because Cheney offered me a Keystone scholarship. Cheyney is an HBCU [Historically Black College and University] and they had a link with U Penn to kind of cross-pollinate. Penn recruited me and what was really special was that I got to work with M.D. and Ph.D.-level people. From some of the research I worked on I even got to publish a few papers. Two of the people I worked with, Jesse Chittams and Tom Ten Have, became mentors. They both invested a lot of time, energy and money on me.

PGN: How so? QG: Well, for example, in 2008 I founded the Educational Justice Coalition (www.ejconline.org). And Tom, um, OK [tears up], I still get emotional at just the thought of it ... Tom believed in me and treated me like a peer. He gave me the money to start ECJ, which is designed to help channel LGBT young people into research fields. I mean, here’s this married, straight man helping LGBT kids. He invested about $30,000 and helped get about seven young people hired in the field. I’m forever indebted to him and to Penn for allowing me to do something that brought me so much. He died recently of skin cancer and Harvard honored him because of the work he’s done all over the world. PGN: And what’s your current job? QG: Well, it became tough to build EJC and work with other nonprofits I was committed to and work at Penn at the same time, so I left Penn. A friend, Brian Green, who had taken an interest in EJC, offered me a job as program manager for newly diagnosed HIV-positive individuals at Safeguards. I’d done that before at the Mazzoni Center in 2003. So I got a job with them doing that, as well as managing AIDS prevention through Brothers United, a group for BMSM (black men who have sex with men). We’ve produced programming around HIV CTR [counseling, testing and referral], condom usage and positive self-worth. It’s also allowed me to develop EJC and we’ve now served over 1,000 LGBT youth offering tutoring and other resources. I love what I do.

PGN: Where do you get your drive? QG: When someone tells me no, I just say, “OK, that means I didn’t aim high enough.” I just keep going until I get a yes from someone at the top. And don’t tell me I can’t do something: It motivates me to prove them wrong!

PGN: What’s the Greene Corporation? QG: That’s the company I really want to take off. It’s a research and development company that seeks to produce environmentally friendly high-tech products of the future. I started it when I had the thought that I was going to be a mechanical engineer. I wanted to come up with solutions for global warming and other environmental issues. For example, I submitted a plan to... oh boy, you’re really getting me to open up, most people don’t know this side of me. I entered a technology competition with a concept I called ARS, accident repellant system. Ever since I was a little boy, I wanted to start a car company. Where other boys collected baseball cards, I collected car catalogs. I always wanted to have a company to develop cars for the future and call it Quantum Motor Corporation. I submitted my ARS program for a patent. Basically it works to prevent accidents: There are cars now that sense each other, but this would keep them from touching each other with repellent magnets. I made it to the semi-finals and I also submitted it to the Honda Research Institute. They were interested but wanted to see a prototype. It was right as I was starting up EJC and that was consuming my time. It was like EJC kept saying, “Me, me, me! Focus on me!” So I put the car project and the Greene Corporation on hold. Once I get EJC stable and fully funded, I hope to get back to it.

PGN: Random question: What’s a favorite piece of clothing? QG: Hats, you’ll always see me wearing a hat. Contrary to my professional image, whatever that is, I like to keep covered. Oh gosh. I’m really an introvert! PGN: I kind of guessed that by the fact that you look like I’m torturing you with each question! If you squeeze any tighter you’ll implode. QG: [Laughs.] I’m sorry! Go ahead.

PGN: So, what time period would you go back to? QG: 1970s. Platform shoes, polyester bellbottoms, disco, giant afros, the roaring gay scene — I’d be into all of that.

PGN: If you could date any celebrity, who would it be? QG: The president. Sorry Michelle! I just love him. He’s everything I want in a partner. I go by Quincy Barack Greene, even though it’s not really my middle name. Now I’m really embarrassed!

PGN: Nothing embarrassing about loving our leader! The worst gift you ever received? QG: Scandalous underwear.

PGN: What song puts you in a good mood? QG: “I Love Your Smile” by Shanice.

PGN: That’s my happy song too! What superhero would you be? QG: Storm — she’s fierce, from African descent, she controls the weather and she’s beautiful. Or I’d be Wolverine, just because there are days when I wish I had those claws. I wouldn’t really hurt anyone but it would be nice to be able to scare someone: “What did you just say?” And “tsssst,” the claws would come out.

PGN: Since you’re the tech guy, something that will be obsolete in 10 years? QG: The door handle. With our germ phobia, I think in 10 years we’ll be a touchless society.

PGN: Which member of your family has had the greatest influence? QG: Both of my parents, but mostly my dad. He’s very inspirational, he encourages me every day with messages like, “Go out and make the world smile.” When I graduated from Bronx High, he made me a plaque that said, “Genius of the Year.” I’m not, but it’s nice that he does things like that to make us feel good about ourselves. And I know he’s always there for me, I was driving back from Atlanta and halfway through the trip I ran out of gas. Without hesitation he wired money to me on the spot. I’ve also had some dark times — I suffer from anxiety and depression — and my dad called me every morning and two or three times throughout the day to make sure I was OK. At times when it got bad, I would go and stay with him for a month at a time and he’d take care of me. My mother had a big problem with me being gay, even up to her death, but my father was like, I don’t care, you’re my son and I love you. That’s inspirational.

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